Siggins on Blackman

CAM guide Philip Siggins reflects on one of his favourite paintings in the collection - Charles Blackman’s Dream Image. Purchased by the gallery in 1964, this tender yet mysterious image of a sleeping Barbara Blackman reflects the artist’s exploration of innocence and foreboding.

Charles Blackman, Dream Image, 1963. Oil on canvas, Castlemaine Art Museum, purchased 1964.  Copyright Estate of the artist. Image: Ian Hill

I like woozy paintings, those works in which the artist explores transitional states and spaces, sets out on a journey into different or peculiar realities. Charles Blackman was a master of slightly malevolent eeriness, of mysterious presences, of trips into zones that simultaneously alarm us and make us laugh—mercurial works that trigger our unconscious. His most famous work is the Alice series and there we are taken on a comedic ride through Lewis Carroll’s world of multi-dimensions. Yet it is a much deeper ride than that: Alice’s adventures are a vehicle for exploring Blackman’s wife Barbara’s increasing blindness, and the shifting of their domestic reality as, in anguish, she, and those around her, tried to come to terms with her condition.

One of my favourite paintings in the CAM collection is Blackman’s Dream Image painted in 1963, a large oil on canvas, acquired by our gallery in 1964. This painting is continuous with earlier work that depict dream-like images clouded in mystery. Dream Image is traditional and innovative at the same time. It is traditional in its subject matter—reclining and sleeping goddesses, snoozing women and maidens belong to a long line of art going back through classical times—and innovative in its extraordinary use of colour and exploration of emotion. In 1959 Blackman signed the Antipodean Manifesto, a protest by leading artists, including Arthur Boyd and John Brack, against American abstract expressionism. They asserted the importance of imagery and emotion. Dream Image is an exemplary painting of that movement.

The sleeping figure is Barbara Blackman, as confirmed by her son, Auguste, when he visited CAM. Barbara and Charles Blackman had three children before their divorce in 1978. In an ABC interview Barbara, with grace and discretion, explained that she “retired” from the marriage. Charles went on to marry and have more children and to divorce twice again. Barbara also married again, this time to a French philosopher, and distinguished herself as a writer and patron of the arts.

In the 1960s, life in the Blackman household was stressful and they were poor. Dream Image takes us out of that stress and into another reality. The sleeper is suspended in an atmosphere of calm blue/turquoise. The patchwork quilt covering the figure is a reminder of homely realities but it has morphed into something magical and vivid. Its edges and colours merge at the boundaries and are feathered. There is no horizon; we and the sleeper are immersed.

To contemplate one’s spouse while they are sleeping is a most intimate thing. Charles Blackman often read to Barbara as her sight declined. Is this a moment in which she has fallen asleep to the sound of his voice? Dream Image conveys a deep sense of the sleeper’s vulnerability. The gaze is compassionate and tender, but one is aware that the sleeper has gone elsewhere, is locked in her own dreaming. Maybe that sleep is a space where the artist husband and his problem drinking can’t reach her, where the demands of children are forgotten.

Dark themes are present in the painting—blindness, sleep and death are siblings. But Barbara has Alice’s blonde hair and has rag doll legs, legs reminiscent of those found in the School Girl paintings. Notwithstanding these playful elements, the head is archaic, noble, possessing a classical Greek profile (is she wise Athena, or the lost Eurydice?), helmet like, immemorial.

You will never know what she is dreaming. Does the title refer to Barbara’s own dreaming or is it a reference to her figure being part of a larger dream that includes both the artist and the passing observer? What we do know is that this painting wonderfully conveys a most intimate insight and sense of being somehow out of time in its stillness and tranquillity.

Phillip Siggins
December 2020

Phillip Siggins

One of CAMs most enthusiastic and skilled guides, Phillip Siggins happily retired to Castlemaine after a long career in academia and university administration. Siggins contributes literary reviews on a regular basis to various publications, such as the Griffith Review. You can read Philip’s previous Reflection on Violet Teague’s Portrait of a Pioneer.

Womindjika Woorineen willam bit
Willam Dja Dja Wurrung Balug
Wokuk mung gole-bo-turoi
talkoop mooroopook

Welcome to our homeland,
home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people
we offer you people good spirit.
Uncle Rick Nelson

The Jaara people of the Dja Dja Wurrung are the Custodians of the land and waters on which we live and work. We pay our respects to the Elders past, present and emerging. We extend these same sentiments to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations peoples.

Enter here